I want to begin a series of posts looking at how Scripture approaches sexuality and slavery and to see whether the allegation that conservatives use two different exegetical principles has any basis. I’m going to begin by looking at one of the most common revisionist arguments in favour of same-sex relationships and move on from there to explore issues of exegesis where Scripture can seem to present ambiguity on a subject.
A word of warning – this post contains some description of sexual acts that some might find offensive. These descriptions are simply for the purpose of academic inquiry to provide context to the discussion of the specific meaning and intent behind the use of certain words in the NT.
To begin, let’s examine one of the most common revisionist arguments in support of blessing same-sex relationships. The argument goes something like this:
The writers (mainly Saint Paul) of the New Testament clobber passages on sexuality were unaware of the possibility of “permanent, faithful, stable” gay relationships. Therefore, their condemnation of specific same-sex acts (prostitution etc) cannot be read as prohibiting modern gay relationships.
It’s a convincing argument, but let’s break it down to examine in detail its constituent parts:
- The NT writers were unaware of permanent gay relationships
- The NT passages refer to specific sexual acts and are not a wider prohibition on same-sex activity per se
- Twenty-first century gay relationships are of a qualitative and substantive different form than those in the first century.
So to the first point. Were NT writers unaware of permanent gay relationships?
We can answer the question “Were NT writers unaware of gay relationships?” with a definitive “No”. While the first century Roman / Hellenistic world that Paul operated in was (at least in the more Hellenistic parts) beginning to frown upon homosexual activity (particularly pederasty, to which we will later return), it still went on and was widely known about. For example, the Roman Emperors Nero and Salba were both widely reported to have taken male lovers (Nero most prominently to have “married” his lover in a public ceremony) but the context of these relationships was almost always of a superior partner and an inferior partner (and this was often linked to the specific roles in penetrative sex). Part of the criticism against Nero (apart from him being completely bonkers) was not that he engaged in homosexual practice, but that he was willing to be the receptive partner in penetrative sex, the role normally taken by the socially inferior person in the relationship.
Earlier, in the mid Roman Republic period (300 -150 BC) there was even wider acceptance – Rome is reported to have specific sectors of the red-light district that catered for male prostitutes. Grafitti has been uncovered in Pompeii that advertises the sexual abilities of specific male prostitutes, indicating that such practices were common well into the first century AD. It appears from the legal framework of this period of Roman rule that while homosexual activity was increasingly being viewed as inferior to heterosexual activity, it was still accepted as long as the social norms of its practice were adhered to, specifically that when it came to penetrative sex the socially superior partner of the relatonship was the one who penetrated.
The one thing however that was completely frowned upon in Roman society, from 300 BC onwards, was pederasty. This was in contrast to the the Hellenistic cultures of Greece, Asia Minor and the near Middle East where pederasty had a long and favoured history. From Homer onwards, the adoration of youth in Greek culture permeated the understanding of sexual expression, and not just homosexually, for Greek men often took teenage wives for themselves when they were aged in their late 20s and older. This pratice displays a clear marked difference between what the Roman and Hellenistic societies saw as ideals and can be easily seen in the contrast between the portrayal of the male body in the relevant artisitic cultures. In Hellenistic erotic art, the male penis is almost always displayed as small and pre-pubescent, even when erect. In Roman erotic art, the bigger the penis the better.
Pederastic relationships of the Erastes-Eromenos format were the most favoured (erastes – lover – the older male; eromenos – “beloved” (though this is not a perfect translation) – the younger male) and depending on location and time period could be chaste or sexual active. A perfect Erastes would not generally be overly interested in the sexual component of the relationship (though that sometimes featured and had a role in the education of the Eromenos) but rather would see his position as a sponsor and educator in the wider sense. Indeed, writers like Plato highlight the moral difference between an adult male who takes on an Eromenos to educate and sponsor and who engages very occasionally in sexual activity and that of an adult male who pays for sex with teenage boys.
Pederasty, where practised, can be seen then as less a demonstration of innate homosexual attraction and more a social constuct to facilitate the life of the community. In Ancient Greece, one model would be of teenage girls from high society being married off to older males (usually aged 30 and above) while the boys would enter into pederastic relationships with men 10 to 15 years their senior (aged in their 20s). These boys would then graduate to being Erastes themselves, until finally marrying teenage girls once they reached the necessary age and refusing any further affection to younger men and boys. This model raises the question as to whether these relationships, even at their highest moral points, can be described in the same language as modern western gay relationships. Compare the Hellenistic pederastic relationships to the modern practice of some tribes in the East Indies who practice a form of ritual sodomisation amongst teenage boys (where boys upon reaching a certain age transfer from their mother’s care to the hut of the teenage boys, and for the next few years engage in ritual sodomy, first as penetrated, then as the penetrator, until they finally leave the hut, marry a girl and never ever engage in sodomy or other homosexual practice again). Is such sexual attraction and ability to function homosexually (and all of the boys involved practice penetration) biological/genetic or culturally conditioned? If culturally conditioned, what does this have to say for our modern western ideas of “natural” homosexuality?
Elsewhere in the Hellenistic world, homosexual relationships between adult males were frowned upon at the very least. The few cases that have come down to us have been viewed as fitting the older / younger model (i.e. Euripedes and Agathon) and the idea of two equal males engaging in a sexual relationship was so socially problematic in the second half of the last millenium BC that Greek writers had to re-interpret the myth of Achilles and Patroclus to make it similar to a pederastic relationship (complicated by the fact that Patroclus was older, but Achilles was the dominant partner).
So, to summarise, the kind of relationships that Paul would have known about are as follows:
- Hellenistic pederasty, where a man aged in his 20s would take a teenage boy. This relationship was not always sexual. Discussion is present in Greek philosophical literature as to whether pederasty was moral.
- Hellenistic male prostitution. This relationship was heavily frowned upon by Greek society.
- Hellenistic adult male couple. This relationship was very rare and socially unacceptable.
- Roman homosexual activity between a socially superior and inferior. While attitudes varied to this practice, it was tolerated as long as the socially superior partner was the assertive / penetrative member.
- Roman homosexual prostitution. Accepted on the same basis of fitting social norms of superior/inferior (i.e. to pay a prostitute to penetrate him was acceptable, to pay one to be penetrated was not).
One could argue from this list that Paul was conversant with at least two forms of homosexual relationship which, while not taking the exact social form of modern western gay relationships, were to some extent “permanent, stable and faithful”. The first was Hellenistic pederasty, which when discussing we need to view beyond our 21st century lens of automatically labelling as immoral on account of the ages involved. Pederasty in its highest forms was not necessarily primarily sexual and played a crucial role in the social life of some Greek cities.
The second form of permanent relationship was the Roman form of two adult male lovers of differing social standings (something scandalous to the Hellenistic mindset). This relationship was explicitly sexual, but normally accentuated by the socially superior member being the more assertive. The junior member received social status by being associated with the senior member, but only in a rare number of cases were the role boundaries crossed.
This second form of relationship has the closest similarities to modern western gay relationships. If one was to remove the social boundaries and hierarchies of specific sexual activities from the Roman model of male adult love, a very clear approximation to modern western gay relationships appears. One thing is clear – Paul was definitely aware of this kind of relationship because it was exported across the Roman Empire wherever the Latins went. If you doubt this, have a read online of Craig Arthur Williams’ “Roman Homosexuality”, which explores these matters in greater depth, including concepts around male-male marriage (to which I will also return in later posts).
In the second part of this series I will turn to the NT passages on homosexuality to see how they might fit in connection with this First Century understanding of homosexual practice. In particular, I will examine some of the revisionist arguments about the possible meanings of certain words and see whether such interpretations in context might interact with the First Century Roman/Hellenistic culture Paul found himself in. After this I will turn to seeing how our hermeneutical processes around homosexuality might then be applied to the issue of slavery in the New Testament.